It was a sublime for our time, for the Anthropocene. There was awe and reverence for the natural world but there was something new and unsettling too, some hard-edged core, to Todd McMillan’s Farewell, exhibited at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney in October.
Farewell was an austere presentation of just eight works: seven large cyanotypes with their cold, night-sky blues, and a video of a man trudging through a snowy wasteland, projected onto a tiny screen suspended in the air.
The cyanotypes showed nothing but enigmatic drifts of light. The catalogue essay revealed they were images of the Aurora Borealis, taken in Iceland, but they could just have easily been the last murmurs of light in the ocean’s depths. The sky and the sea, fitting reference points for a discussion of humanity’s endgame.
Throughout his career, McMillan has searched out the omens, the fragile markers, of our doom. For past bodies of work, he’s tracked down the elusive Shy Albatross in the Southern Ocean, and traveled to Antarctica. In Farewell, his interest in the Aurora is tied to myth. Some say Norsemen thought the flickering lights were cast by the armour of Valkyrie, and presaged death. The cyanotypes in Farewell carry similar portent, titled as they are A Sign, I-VII.
Today, of course, we attribute the lights to solar winds rather than imminent battle. To McMillan that’s no less wondrous. As he puts it, he tries to embrace “the poetic as well as the scientific…I too choose to bow to the wonder while quietly in love each time my subscription to New Scientist comes in.”
Farewell is not just an update of romantic traditions, with Friedrich’s wanderer merely shifting his gaze from the mountains to the sky. McMillan’s visions, where the deep cyans swallow the light, are fundamentally more terrifying because the fear is not of the power of nature, but of ourselves and our power to destroy.
The austerity of Farewell is part of McMillan’s answer to his despair: this is no time for hedonism, even it is all too late. More than that, his ability to compress, to distil is commanding proof of the elegance of his poetic language.
Full story in Art Collector‘s Standout Shows of 2016 feature, Issue 79, January-March 2017.